Holy Land Graceland

neve ilan, israel | In a land famous for its shrines stands a quirky pantheon to the king of rock ‘n’ roll. And it was to this combination gas station, restaurant and tourist shop that Israeli fans of Elvis made their pilgrimage Aug. 16 to honor the King on the 30th anniversary of his death.

A few dozen diehards shook, rattled and rolled into the Elvis American Diner near Jerusalem, where a 15-feet tall Elvis statue looming over the entrance dispels any doubt about whether visitors have reached the right place.

“Elvis is not a singer, he’s a phenomenon,” hollered owner Uri Yoeli, who established the joint in 1974, as a mutton-chopped impersonator shook his hips at the karaoke machine behind him.

Patrons, meanwhile, rocked to the strains of “Hound Dog” and swayed to Elvis’ signature ballad, “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Yoeli, 60, said he fell in love with the King in the 1960s, and his diner — adorned with 1,728 pictures, three life-size figures and a slew of kitschy memorabilia — serves as a nostalgic getaway for him and others.

“It reminds us of our childhood,” he said. “And everything looks sweeter there. It takes us back to the magic.”

An exit sign on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway that simply reads “Elvis” points Elvis lovers in the diner’s direction.

Among the mountains of touristy knickknacks on display was a postcard of Elvis superimposed by the Western Wall in a Jewish prayer shawl. The caption reads: “I saw Elvis Aaron Presley at the Western Wall.” Another postcard places the King in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Jesus’ traditional birthplace.

The eatery’s menu features the “The Elvis burger” — a hamburger topped with lettuce, tomato and a special sauce that was a hit with the King. The peanut butter and fried banana sandwich Elvis loved never caught on, Yoeli said.

Yoeli explained the Elvis allure in Israel as partly due to the King’s alleged Jewish roots.

Elvis’ maternal great-great-grandmother, Nancy Tackett, was Jewish, according to one author. Tackett’s daughter Martha Tackett was the mother of Doll Mansell, who in turn was the mother of Elvis’ mother, Gladys Smith, according to a book, “Elvis and Gladys,” by Elaine Dundy.

Religious law says Judaism is passed down from the mother, so Elvis could be considered Jewish even though he was raised Christian.

Israel’s link to Elvis was deepened last year when celebrity psychic Uri Geller purchased the Memphis home Elvis lived in before he moved into Graceland.

To mark the anniversary, Israeli radio stations played lots of Elvis tunes and Channel 10 TV did a special segment with two of his most famous local impersonators.

After performing at the Elvis American Diner, Eran Levran — clad in a white jumpsuit and cape with his collar turned up — said he was experiencing mixed emotions.

“It’s a sad day and a happy day,” Levran, 29, said in Hebrew overlaid with a Southern drawl. “We lost one of the great people of this world, but today we are remembering him.”